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1998’s Up and (early) 2001’s Reveal—R.E.M.’s first efforts as a trio-with-sidemen after the retirement of drummer Bill Berry—were notably lacking in propulsion, direction, and hooks. Michael Stipe slouched toward solipsism, Mike Mills fiddled with trip-hop, and Peter Buck said, “I’ll just make feedback on this one,” every second song. Around the Sun is too downtempo to read as a we’ll-take-our-mantle-back-now move like U2’s triumphal All That You Can’t Leave Behind, but it’s close. “Leaving New York” (the first single) and “Wanderlust” resemble, respectively, “Man on the Moon” and “Stand”—the very molds the previous two albums set out to smash. Structure trumps texture throughout: “Make It All OK” is a formally tight breakup ballad, with spiritual overtones, that could fit neatly on a good singer-songwriter record, and others are arranged semi-acoustically, highlighting Stipe’s cleanest melodies and most inviting vocal performances in years. Even the higher-tech “Electron Blue” (a New Order bite, I could swear) and “The Outsiders” (with a tacked-on, MLK-quoting Q-Tip verse) function as songs first, production conceits second.
R.E.M. may want another hit, which is fine, but there’s another reason for their renewed focus: The band’s third post-Berry album is also their first since September 11. As a response to our national slide from smugness to shock to vengeful pride, Around the Sun is sometimes oblique, but rarely obscure. The setting of the single is no accident, and lines from overtly personal songs double as attempts to reflect the national mood: “The water is rising, you try to rappel/A rousing cheer for the boy in the well.” The long view taken by the closing title track (“Hold on world, you don’t know what’s coming”) is meant to be cleansing. Unfortunately, it’s mush compared to “I Wanted to Be Wrong,” the disc’s tough-minded, here-and-now centerpiece. Stipe’s narrator drives cross-country, taking in “the weevils with the wheat,” rodeos, church services, and talk-radio rhetoric, concluding in the corridors of power with a frustrated plea to “destroy the things that I don’t understand.” It’s the anti-mythic flip side to the tour-van romance of “Little America,” now 20 years old; it’s also a grand, open-chorded strummer in one of the band’s longest-established modes. When you have something to say, you use the language you know.
R.E.M. play Madison Square Garden November 4.